Books That Made a Difference (And Still Do)

9 personal reflections on the one book whose message continues to resonate

The printed word still matters.

At a time when traditional forms of print media are surrendering to electronic transmission, the full-length hardcover/softcover book still finds its way onto the reading lists of the nation’s top-level education administrators.

The School Administrator invited two handfuls of thoughtful school system leaders to share short, personal reflections about a single book that’s had a long-lasting impact on their lives personally and/or professionally. Nine ultimately agreed to do so.

We asked these educators to tell us about their relationship with the chosen book, describing how they first encountered the work, how it’s affected their thinking as education leaders or how the message continues to resonate in their lives.

Their selections range widely. They include titles on leadership that may be familiar to many superintendents and others that are fairly obscure and largely unconnected to any aspect of schooling or management. We published a similar cover story in 1998, and interestingly, one title (Ron Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers) from that list reappears among the selected works.

The nine short essays follow. We invite readers to send us an e-mail briefly explaining a favorite title from some point of view in their professional life. We will post this list on our magazine’s website.

Future Shock
Reflection by John L. Barry

Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon just a year before I picked up a copy of Future Shock by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in 1970. As a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I faced the challenge of incorporating change and new ideas into my life. Future Shock helped frame my thinking on change, which guides me even today.

When I originally read the book, I was struck by the need to adapt to the incredible acceleration of transformation that was everywhere I looked, including the lunar landing.

JohnBarry.jpgJohn Barry, superintendent in Aurora, Colo., encountered Alvin Toffler's Future Shock as an Air Force cadet.

Toffler’s discussion of an education movement that changed structures (organizations), revolutionized curricula (technology) and encouraged a system of skills initiated my lifelong interest in and study of transformation.

Toffler clearly identified that the key to understanding change is to focus on the gap between the changing environment and the pace of human response in terms of the “shock” that emanates from change. This pace can be both frightening and exhilarating. I have learned it is less important to get the future “right” than to understand the journey.

Toffler clearly identified that the key to understanding change is to focus on the gap between the changing environment and the pace of human response in terms of the “shock” that emanates from change. This pace can be both frightening and exhilarating. I have learned it is less important to get the future “right” than to understand the journey.

In 1986, I had the privilege of meeting Alvin Toffler and developing a friendship with him. I remember at the 30th anniversary of the publication of Future Shock, Toffler admitted a lot of his original thoughts were obsolete or just wrong. The insight I gained from this disclosure is the importance of sharing innovative stretches of the imagination and taking the risk of “thinking outside the box.”

As an education leader, I am influenced by Toffler’s prophetic arguments about education. The prime objective of education, he contended, is to increase an individual’s “cope-ability,” defined as the speed and economy with which someone can adapt to continual change.


This is especially true for students learning in today’s digital world. Think about the projection that today’s students will change jobs up to a dozen times in their lifetimes. Cope-ability will be critical to their success.

Toffler aptly stated in 1970 that education must shift into the future tense! As they use Twitter, MySpace and Facebook on portable devices, today’s students are already there. As educators, we hold a responsibility to help them understand their journey of change.

John Barry is superintendent in Aurora, Colo. E-mail: jlbarry@aps.k12.co.us

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done
Reflection by Jean-Claude Brizard

I am a pragmatist. Perhaps it is because I was born that way. Perhaps it is because I studied the physical sciences where A + B usually yielded C. Perhaps it is because I am a commercially rated pilot and the path that a school district is taking can be compared to an aircraft traveling across the country.

Like the aircraft, the school district’s journey is a series of corrections to a planned course. A set of periodic updates and adjustments ensure the aircraft maintains its track over the ground and arrives at its planned destination.

Brizard.jpgFellow superintendents introduced Execution to the superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., Jean-Claude Brizard.

Regardless of the origin of my pragmatism, I’d like to believe that an effect has one or multiple causes and that understanding the causalities and correlations involved in our work is critical to our success as educators.

I was first introduced to Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, a work co-authored by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, by Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, and subsequently by Arlene Ackerman, the CEO of the Philadelphia Public Schools. While written from a business perspective, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done has many useful tools for educators. Bossidy and Charan define execution as “the systematic process of rigorously discussing ‘hows’ and ‘whats,’ questioning, tenaciously following through and ensuring accountability.”

In education we often talk of the hows — professional development, curriculum, principal and teacher quality — without adequately defining the whats — student achievement goals.

Bossidy and Charan describe three core processes that all leaders must manage: The people process, the strategy process and the operations process. In a field where nearly 80 percent of our annual budgets are allocated to personnel, the people process is critically important to our work as education leaders.




In Chapter 3, Bossidy outlines the leader’s seven essential behaviors. They are know your people and your business; insist on realism; set clear goals and priorities; follow through; reward the doers; expand people’s capabilities; and know yourself.

Clearly the implications for staff selection, capacity building, union contracts and pay for performance cannot be understated. In systems where pay increases only come with newly negotiated raises or as one ages, these essential behaviors must be aligned with appropriate reforms.

I am a pragmatist, but I never forget to dream.

Jean-Claude Brizard is the superintendent in Rochester, N.Y. E-mail: brizard@rcsdk12.org

Tongue Fu!
Reflection by Michael A. Haynes

In my early 20s, during the summer preceding my senior year of college, I was working as a counselor at Interlochen Arts Camp in northern Michigan when my supervisor, a band director turned school guidance counselor, handed me a book to read. During the following weeks and the next three summers, we talked a lot about the lessons contained in that book, Tongue Fu!: How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict.

MikeHaynes.jpgMichael Haynes

Similar to the martial art of kung fu, Tongue Fu! is intended to provide advice to “defuse, disarm or deflect” verbal attacks from obstructive individuals. Tongue Fu! promotes confidence and mental agility by teaching skills to avoid personal conflict and create win-win scenarios. Author Sam Horn, a corporate communication consultant, promotes empathy as a key ingredient to interpersonal relationships.

As a young teacher, I encountered challenging students, colleagues complaining in the teachers lounge, uncooperative parents and a principal asking more of me than I thought realistic. During these formative years as a Tongue Fu! artist, I practiced my listening skills and, as Horn puts it, “words to use and words to lose,” such as following up someone’s comment with “and” rather than “but.”

Once I became a principal, I learned the demanding principal I had worked for early in my teaching career didn’t have unrealistic expectations for me. He just didn’t use Tongue Fu! in his daily communications with the staff. I also discovered that listening first was critical and that the simple act of active listening can calm the most hostile opponent. I discovered I could defuse personal attacks and lead others to understand my perspective simply by listening actively and presenting my side by using the right words and phrases.


Now, as a superintendent, not only do I have the chance to practice my Tongue Fu!, I have the opportunity to watch others as they do or do not exercise their Tongue Fu! skills.

Michael Haynes is superintendent of the NICE Community School District in Ishpeming, Mich. E-mail: haynesm@nice.k12.mi.us

Don’t Think of an Elephant!
Reflection by Thomas Fowler-Finn

From my first read of Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff, I have been compelled to rethink my values and how my plans, goals and actions serve to further those things in life that I hold dear, both personally and professionally.

This powerful little book, a New York Times bestseller, was first introduced to me some four years ago by a superintendent in a large Canadian school system who made it required reading for everyone in his administration. He felt he had been able to accomplish greater change with more support by rethinking and better understanding the goals of his work through the lens of this book. I have found the same to be true.

ThomasFowlerFinn.jpgThomas Fowler-Finn learned about Don't Think of an Elephant! from a Canadian school leader who made it required reading.

Lakoff makes a convincing case for the critical importance of reframing the subconscious mental structures that shape the way we see the world. Reframing, Lakoff asserts, is social change that progressives and educators in particular have ignored, much to the detriment of accomplishing goals. The book has helped me to understand and even admire the way in which the right wing and conservative politicians have commanded the public discourse for so many years.

For example, the Bush White House constantly referred to its plans for “tax relief,” now a commonly accepted concept. The word relief is associated with ending affliction. When relief is tacked onto “taxes,” the mental model suggests that personal taxes are an affliction. Someone who removes the affliction provides relief and is heroic. Enter George W. Bush, the hero with his tax relief remedy.

In fact, taxes and public education are a necessary and important investment in a democratic society. And so, when I think through my plans for the school district, I present my budget as an educational plan (rather than a budget plan) that champions children and excellent instruction, strategic professional development that invests in leadership at all levels, and support for the whole child through the lifeline work of curriculum coordinators.


The way we talk and act about education in private and in public becomes more cohesive, more easily understood and more strategic as we clarify our values and think about larger moral goals versus programs. I find myself being more positive and not on the defensive as I work through framing the landscape of public education. I find it uplifting, as do the others in our planning group. Thanks to Lakoff’s little book, rethinking and reframing have made a big difference for me and for children.

Thomas Fowler-Finn recently retired as superintendent in Cambridge, Mass. E-mail: tfowlerfin@aol.com

The Leadership Moment
Reflection by Nancy J. McGinley

I read The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All by Michael Useem several years before I decided to become a superintendent, but the lessons from the book still resonate for me nearly every day.

McGinley.jpgNancy McGinley finds resonating lessons for everyday challenges in The Leadership Moment.

As a superintendent in a district with 44,000 students and nearly 6,000 employees, I wake up each morning knowing my leadership will be tested. I never know exactly how nor when, yet I know when that moment arrives, it is essential I am prepared.

Through Useem’s stories of nine leaders, I learned that what I do, or fail to do, at a critical moment on the job or in life can have incredible repercussions, positive and negative. These nine stories contain countless powerful lessons. The stories of leaders unknown to me were perhaps more significant than those of famous events and well-known names.

The poignant tales of two leaders, in particular, defined the path I try to follow in my world every day. The first, Roy Vagelos, an executive at Merck and Co., one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical firms, convinced the company to commit millions of dollars to develop a drug needed only by people who could not afford it. His company risked losing hundreds of millions of dollars, but eventually Merck discovered a cure for a deadly river blindness infecting more than 18 million people. Vagelos never wavered in his conviction.

A second favorite was a story of failure. Wagner Dodge was leading a team of 15 sky-jumping firefighters into a tinder-dry ravine in Montana when an enormous wall of flame raced up at them. He knew they were running for their lives. Dodge had the knowledge and a solution. But in the end only two crew members followed his scant instructions and only that pair and Dodge survived.


Dodge teaches me the essentials of communication for leaders: “If you want trust and compliance when the need for them cannot be fully explained, explain yourself early. ... Being a person of few words may be fine in a technical position, but it is a prescription for disaster in a position of leadership.”

I use this book when I teach future principals. But mostly I use it as a personal reminder that every leadership moment matters … a lot.

Nancy McGinley is superintendent of the Charleston County School District in Charleston, S.C. E-mail: Nancy_McGinley@charleston.k12.sc.us

A Whole New Mind
Reflection by Emilie M. Lonardi

Over my 28 years in school leadership, I have focused much of my energies sorting through the vast array of professional development opportunities and sharing with staff those that connect to our vision and further our professional growth. To that end, I have embraced much of the brain-based literature in education.

LonardiReading.jpgEmilie Lonardi, superintendent of the West York Area School District in York, Pa., reads to students in her school district.

Concurrently, I’ve assisted the school district’s leadership team deal with the albatross of preparing students for success on statewide tests. The amount of declarative knowledge needed to comprehend the multitude of state standards is so consuming that teachers often feel all else is subordinate to test preparation. Moreover, the current zealotry for proficiency on standardized tests has become a saboteur of creative methodologies and classroom activities. Admittedly, accountability for student learning is extremely important, but as a district leader, I want to promulgate so much more.

When I read Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, I was reminded that the enthusiasm I hold for the learning process, student engagement and creative, real-world experiences that make each day stimulating for learners is indeed worthy. And, according to Pink, it aligns with the right-brained shift that’s taking place.

Pink argues we are beyond the information age of knowledge workers and have moved into the conceptual age of creators and empathizers. This new age honors right-brained thinking — in fact, it demands it to succeed. He discusses two categories of necessary human skills. The first is called expert thinking — the capacity to solve new problems for which there are no routine solutions. The other is the need for complex communication — persuading, explaining and conveying a particular interpretation of information. He uses action words such as “encapsulate,” “contextualize” and “emotionalize” as imperative skills in the conceptual age.


For me, this book was energizing and refreshing, clearly demonstrating the conceptual age is upon us. To flourish in this century, today’s youth must be prepared to enter an array of imaginative, emotionally intelligent professions including ours. As a school system leader, I feel validated through A Whole New Mind. It’s given me the grounding to promote, expect and honor those essential skills paramount in a conceptual age.

Emilie Lonardi is superintendent of the West York Area School District in York, Pa. E-mail: emlonardi@wyasd.k12.pa.us

The Fire Next Time
Reflection by Joshua P. Starr

In my junior year of college I took a class in the history of black music. I had been a musician since childhood and I wanted to learn more about the roots of some of the music I loved listening to and even attempted to play.

JoshuaStarr.jpgJoshua Starr is superintendent in Stamford, Conn.

One of the assigned readings was The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. His Harlem of 1962 could not have been further from my homogenous Westchester, N.Y., suburb of the 1980s. My 19-year-old mind conceptualized social justice in a polemical fashion — one was either part of the problem or part of the solution. Yet here was Baldwin, who could express such deep anger at the disgrace of race relations in our society, while remaining convinced that only through love would we reach a higher plane as a nation. “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck,” Baldwin writes, “and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

Baldwin also says, “I knew the tension in me between love and power, between pain and rage, and the curious, the grinding way I remained extended between these poles — perpetually attempting to choose better rather than the worse.” His struggle remains. It is too convenient to label things as right or wrong, good or bad, black or white.


As a superintendent, I constantly confront the shades of gray in my everyday work. Too many people want to blame others when our children do not achieve, yet Baldwin would challenge us to find the strength to move forward with the knowledge that “we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation — if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.”

Admitting you need others in order to become a stronger whole is not a typical value in our society, although it’s the very lesson we teach our children in kindergarten or on the athletic field. Baldwin helped me lift my blinders. His ability to frame issues of social justice were more nuanced, complex and visionary than anything I had encountered. He presents a reality that is more than simply right or wrong, and in doing so, he offers a path forward, a way out, if we can only find the courage.

Joshua Starr is superintendent in Stamford, Conn. E-mail: jstarr@ci.stamford.ct.us

Leadership Without Easy Answers
Reflection by Thomas L. Rogers

In the past six years as our association’s executive director, I’ve been contacted by more than 100 superintendents in various stages of career crisis. Their concerns rarely involve instructional issues. Rather, they inevitably deal with seemingly intractable problems with school board members, the community or the process of leading wholesale transformation.

TomRogers.jpgTom Rogers is executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents in Albany, N.Y.

I seldom offer direct advice. Instead, I reach for my secret weapon, Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz, a leadership book whose name disguises just how practical its insights and strategies are.

Heifetz distinguishes between technical work (problems that an organization already has learned how to solve) and adaptive work (unavoidable challenges for which it has yet no solution). Superintendents face endless technical work — solving crises, completing budgets, managing initiatives — whose skillful performance creates more demand and a perception of accomplishment. But when this work is allowed to crowd out adaptive work, Heifetz observes it isn’t mere distraction. It’s “work avoidance,” evading the more challenging task of adapting to unavoidable but uncomfortable change.

Work avoidance creates a dangerous leadership vacuum that invites dysfunction — board members micromanaging or leading unconstructive change; informal leaders advancing subversive initiatives; or competing community interests with no referee. As one retired superintendent colleague put it: “Everyone else works in the organization, but only the leader can work on it.” The leader need not have all the answers (indeed adaptive problems have no answers, yet), but must lead the process of finding shared solutions. The tough question is: How?


Fortunately, Heifetz’ book is more cure than diagnosis. It’s an afternoon being led by a senior medical resident through “leadership rounds” using a series of case studies to illustrate how to gain perspective, distinguish between technical and adaptive work, engage stakeholders in both process and solutions, and deal with change’s emotional impact.

Reading leadership books is an occupational hazard. Many are excellent, but I’ve only got one that’s dog-eared from use. So whether you’re dealing with major dysfunction or driving challenging change, I’m happy to let you borrow my secret weapon and spare yourself a phone call.

Tom Rogers is executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents in Albany, N.Y. E-mail: tom@nyscoss.org

Learned Optimism
Reflection by Tim Waters

How often does one read a book that profoundly influences one’s thinking and behavior as a leader, as a spouse and as a parent? Such was the case with Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman. His lifelong study of why some people persist in the face of adversity while others give up carried immediate applications in my professional life (I was a superintendent at the time). Little did I know in 1991 that this book also would help me endure the nasty and debilitating treatments associated with a 1995 cancer diagnosis.

TimWaters.jpgTim Waters found himself buoyed by the words of Learned Optimism during his treatment for cancer.

Nearly two decades after reading this book, how I interpret events in my organization’s life, as well as in my personal life, and explain successes and disappointments in ways that foster resilience and hope continue to be heavily influenced by Learned Optimism.

The book’s seminal finding is that individuals understand events through the lens of their own explanatory style. The key difference between whether individuals persevere and rise to the occasion in the face of adversity or give up hope and fail relates to how permanent, pervasive and personal they view the adverse conditions. The difference, Seligman says, is especially profound following disappointing experiences.

The optimist explains adversity and disappointments as isolated, temporary and external or impersonal (e.g., “Missing the free throw at the end of the basketball game is unlike me, but I’ll practice harder and do better next week”). The pessimist explains adversity and disappointments as pervasive, permanent and internal or personal (e.g., “I missed the free throw because I’m not an athletic person”). The opposite is true when it comes to accomplishments and successes.

Seligman discovered explanatory styles in organizations, too. Organizations, or the people in them, develop collective explanatory styles, often reflecting the style of the organization’s leader. Organizations with optimistic explanatory styles, like individuals, are more likely to improve performance following disappointments or in the face of adversity, while performance in organizations with pessimistic explanatory styles is likely to decline.


Every organization, including school districts, experiences periodic setbacks. Organizations that explain disappointments as isolated and temporary tend to demonstrate greater resilience and improved subsequent performance.

I try to keep this finding in mind when I must interpret disappointing performance with my leadership team, our staff or our board of directors. I remember it when discussing disappointments with my wife and family. I certainly kept it in mind when interpreting a diagnosis of cancer and the endless rounds of treatment.

Surviving cancer requires the successful management of many variables, over which most patients have little control. One variable I could control, however, was my explanation of the diagnosis and the events that followed. Inspired by what I read in Learned Optimism, I could see treatment as isolated and temporary, fueling the hope and resilience essential to my survival.

Tim Waters is president and CEO of Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Denver, Colo. E-mail: twaters@mcrel.org

Book Selections
These are the nine books featured in this article, listed alphabetically along with the publisher and original date of publication.

Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff, Chelsea Green, 2004

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Crown Business, 2002

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Random House, 1962

Future Shock by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Random House, 1970

The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All by Michael Useem, Three Rivers Press, 1999

Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz, Harvard Uninversity Press, 1994

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E.P. Seligman, Pocket Books, 1990

Tongue Fu!: How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict by Sam Horn, St. Martin’s Press, 1996

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink, Penguin Books, 2005